22 September – 25 October 1918

The battle that took place to defend the town of Tsaritsyn on the River Volga in the autumn of 1918 against anti-Bolshevik forces was foster parent, in a number of ways, to the great battle of Stalingrad, fought twenty-four years later. During the key stages of the battle, the special plenipotentiary of Lenin’s new Bolshevik government was a young Georgian revolutionary, Joseph Stalin. He gave the impression, both then and later, that it was only thanks to his courage, ruthlessness and energy that the enemy had been driven back. A number of myths began to emerge once the threat was over, one of which was the success of Dmitrii Zhloba’s ‘Steel Division’, summoned by Stalin at the last moment from the Caucasus to save the embattled revolutionaries. Victory in the nick of time, Soviet propaganda later proclaimed, was thanks to the military genius of Stalin. Tsaritsyn was renamed Stalingrad in 1925 in memory o

A heroic painting of Joseph Stalin (centre right) and Kliment Voroshilov (to Stalin’s right) by the Soviet artist Vasili Khvostenko (1895-1960) portrays the two men directing the battle at Tsaritsyn in the autumn of 1918 against the encroaching White armies. In truth, Stalin’s role in the battle was more modest and his vindictive punishment of alleged shirkers a foreshadow of the terror and purges of the 1930s.

f Stalin’s heroic defence of the town. Stalin seems to have believed the myths himself. During the first years of the Soviet-German war in 1941-42, the long legacy of Tsaritsyn was enough to persuade the dictator that he could once again save the day.

The defence of Tsaritsyn was not, of course, all myth, even if Stalin’s role in it was used in the 1930s to puff up his reputation once he had become dictator. The Bolshevik revolution of October 1917 provoked an almost immediate counter-revolution. By the spring of 1918, the new regime was being assailed from all sides by ‘White’ armies made up of a wide range of enemies, including the southern Cossacks commanded by Lieutenant General Pyotr Krasnov, the Ataman of the Don Cossack Host. Krasnov was armed by the Germans, who in 1918, following the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk made with Lenin’s government in March, occupied the Ukraine. Krasnov built up an army of 40,000, supported by artillery and machine guns, and began to drive the infant Red Army units across the Don Steppe towards the Volga, just as Hitler’s armies were to do a generation later. In July, Krasnov launched his first attempt to seize Tsaritsyn and the surrounding area and cut off the food artery to the Bolshevik north.

It was Krasnov’s threat to Tsaritsyn that prompted Lenin to send Stalin south to make sure that the town did not fall and that the critical grain supplies from the Caucasus, on which the Red Army and the cities depended, could be maintained. On 22 July, a Military Council was established composed of Stalin, a young Bolshevik commander named Kliment Voroshilov and the local communist organizer, S. K. Minin. Stalin set about reorganizing the local military effort, but he distrusted the former Tsarist officers appointed by the head of the Red Army, Leon Trotsky. Stalin acted with complete ruthlessness, ordering the execution of men he regarded as incompetent or politically unreliable. He reported back to Moscow: ‘I chase and swear at everyone who asks for it… You can rest assured that I will not spare anyone.’ The first Cossack assault was turned back in August. Red Army military forces were reorganized as the Southern Front under overall command of the former Tsarist general, Pavel Sytin, who had to put up with Stalin’s interference in everything he did. The town and the food supply were still not safe, however. In September 1918, Krasnov reorganized his Cossack Host into two armies: one of 20,000 men and 47 guns; a second with 25,000 men, 93 guns and 6 armoured trains. Behind them stood a reserve army of new recruits, composed of another 20,000.

It was this battle in late September 1918 that gave rise to the myth of Stalin as the military hero who saved the revolution – he ‘took the reins of leadership into his own firm hands’, wrote Voroshilov in Pravda a decade later. The 10th Army defending the town was not outnumbered, since there were about 40,000 men, 152 guns and 13 armoured trains in support, but the Cossacks were savage and experienced fighters. There was fierce fighting in the suburbs of the town while in the first week of October, Cossack forces reached the Volga south of the town and crossed to the far side of the river, behind the Soviet front. As the White soldiers pressed towards the city, Zhloba’s ‘Steel Division’ of 15,000 men, disobeying military orders, answered Stalin’s summons and marched 800 kilometres (500 miles) in sixteen days, falling on the rear of the Cossack army on the seventeenth day and saving Tsaritsyn from capture. By 25 October, with help from other revolutionary armies, the Cossacks were driven back across the River Don, just as the Soviet counter-offensive in the rear of the German 6th Army later on saved Stalingrad.

It is difficult to separate myth and reality in the differing accounts of the battle. By the time Voroshilov, now commissar for the army and navy and Stalin’s close ally, wrote his eulogy to the dictator in 1929, few people would have dared to contradict him. Tsaritsyn became known as the ‘Red Verdun’ because it suited Bolshevik propaganda to have an apparently hard-won and symbolic victory. The evidence surrounding the arrival of the ‘Steel Division’, in the nick of time thanks to Stalin, is unreliable. Moreover, Trotsky’s irritation at Stalin’s interference with military orders led to his removal back to Moscow on 19 October, and in November Voroshilov was relieved of command. Later, in 1919, Tsaritsyn was captured by the Whites without serious threat to the survival of the revolution elsewhere. As with many battles, the story of the defence of Tsaritsyn in 1918 was used to serve political purposes quite independent of the battle itself. Stalin, Voroshilov and other men who had fought with them rose to political power and high command; Stalin never forgave Trotsky’s characterization of Bolshevik front-line representatives as ‘Party ignoramuses’ and drove him from Russia a decade after Tsaritsyn. The irony is that Stalingrad was saved from German capture in 1942 only because Stalin at last recognized the considerable limits to his military genius and let the professional soldiers take the lead, once again in the nick of time.